Dramatic drops in the numbers of referrals to doctors and hospitals for a whole range of serious medical conditions is causing growing concern for health professionals.

National figures show drops of between 50% and 75% in referrals for dangerous conditions like stroke and heart failure as well as cancer and other progressive conditions over the past several weeks.

This is in addition to the official cancellations of non-urgent surgery, some of which is life-preserving for the patients affected.  There is now concern that as many people will die from the impact of staying-at-home and avoiding hospitals as will from coronavirus itself.

In Scotland has been a 72 per cent drop in urgent suspected cancer referrals; there's been a reduction in families bringing children in for immunisations, meaning an increased of epidemics of those diseases; and attendance at Accident and Emergency units and paediatric units has halved.

NHS Western Isles says: "During these extremely challenging times, we would like to remind members of the Western Isles community that your Health Service remains available to you when you need us!

"We are acutely aware of the national and local position, with reduced attendances at Emergency Departments, GP Practices and people not wanting to bother health service staff with issues that they would, under normal circumstances, seek help for.

"Whilst NHS Western Isles staff are working hard to prepare and plan for potential pressure on our services as a result of COVID-19 over the coming weeks and months, we would urge the local community to continue to access services as and when they need to. We are still open; we are still here for you.

"Nobody should suffer in silence and nobody should try and cope alone if they are in need of health service support."

NHS Western Isles Medical Director, Dr Frank McAulay, said: “For the past number of weeks, we have all been constantly overwhelmed on a daily basis with information on COVID-19 and we are all aware of the impact it has had on how we all live our lives and on the NHS. Normality for us all has become something very different in a rapid space of time, which causes alarm and confusion.

“What has not changed, however, is the issues that members of our community still continue to experience. Whilst so much has stopped as a result of COVID-19; issues with our physical, non physical and social wellbeing do not just stop. Coping or simply accepting health issues at this time is not necessary and not something we would advise.”

"Whilst non-urgent procedures have regrettably been cancelled across the country, health services are still available for communities to access; whether it be cancer services, mental health, emergency care or chronic disease management. These services remain available and, whilst we appreciate all people are doing to help the NHS during this time, it is vital those with non-coronavirus health concerns still seek help as they would have before the outbreak.

"Some services may be provided differently – for example some services are being delivered virtually by a video link system called ‘Near Me’ – but the normal routes to access the services themselves has not changed."

Dr McAulay continued: “The NHS is here for you, so don’t ignore the warning signs.  You are not being a burden, you are looking after yourself and our NHS by seeking help. Please don’t put your health at risk. Your community pharmacy and your GP are open, please contact them for advice or with concerns that are not COVID-19 related. If you notice a deterioration in your health or the health of someone in your household, call your GP in normal hours, 111 out of hours, or in an emergency dial 999.

“Please do not be frightened to attend healthcare premises. Whilst physical distancing continues and we are all very aware of the advice to stay at home, there are very legitimate and important reasons that people have to leave the house – one of those being for issues relating to your health.

"We would also reassure you that those displaying COVID-19 symptoms are being treated separately to patients attending for other reasons.”

  • NHS screening services for breast, bowel and cervical cancer have been paused during COVID-19 but if you’ve noticed symptoms and are concerned, your GP practice is open and ready to help.  Getting checked early is one of the main reasons why more people are surviving cancer. For further information visit www.getcheckedearly.org
  • If you are experiencing mental health issues, please do not delay in accessing your local mental health service by contacting your CPN (Community Psychiatric Nurse) or your local GP Practice.
  • If you or your child has an immunisation appointment, make sure you attend, or reschedule if you’re showing symptoms of COVID-19.
  • If you have a regular appointment for a chronic condition such as asthma or diabetes you should contact your GP and they will advise you. If your hospital appointment has not be cancelled you should still attend.

Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron is backing the appeal, part of the Scottish Government’s “NHS is Open” campaign,  and urging anyone with urgent health worries not to ignore the problem and to contact their GP or local hospital.

Mr Cameron said: “It is concerning that there has been 72 per cent drop in urgent suspected cancer referrals.  Please don’t think twice and contact your local health centre if you have a health concern, or any other condition that you feel would benefit from a consultation. m Many GPs are now conducting consultations either virtually or over the phone and the last thing our doctors would wish for is for people to take risks with their health and ignore obvious symptoms.”

The NHS is Open campaign, launched yesterday (Friday April 24) urges people to contact their local GP or hospital if they have health concerns. The campaign encourages people to call their GP surgery, or 111 out of hours, if they have urgent health concerns. In emergencies, they should still dial 999.